In better times, November was a magical month for Alaska big-game hunters.
Late-season hunts for moose and caribou were the norm, as was a significant blanket of white over the landscape. It was a time when many Alaskans filled the freezer — not so much because there were more animals, but because the human population was half what it is today. The pressure on game was much less and allowed for more opportunity for game meat.
That's all water under the bridge, and it isn't going to flow back upstream. Now the remarkable event in November is the start of trapping season across most of Alaska.
Although there are earlier openings for trapping coyote and wolf in some parts of Alaska, most trappers don't target them until November, when they have grown their fur.
Because the majority of our outdoor pursuits involve our dogs, the opening of trapping season changes the way Christine and I pursue game.
We all but abandon lowland grouse hunting. Our setters are big running dogs that hunt out of our sight. The potential is there for them to catch wind of bait, investigate and get caught in a trapping device, so we avoid it. This isn't much of a hardship because our lowland hunting is for spruce grouse, and by November they are rank with spruce-needle flavor and aren't the best eating.
We go into the high country, as long as snow conditions allow, year-round. There are areas we go into that are used by trappers, although not many. Most trappers who run significant traplines do so from snowmachines, and we avoid those areas. In the country below treeline that we must pass through to get to the alpine regions, we keep the setters at heel until we can determine if someone is trapping the area. It's a minor inconvenience that is well worth the peace of mind it brings.
Getting to know the country while exercising caution is perhaps the best way to think of it. The allure of the outdoors, at least for me, is the freedom to make your way into it and rely on your own knowledge and skills to get you there and back. Expectations of safety rest on your shoulders, not on government regulation.
Alaska waterfowl hunters enjoy good hunting along open waterways in November and December. Open rivers and streams are natural corridors for predators such as wolves, coyotes, foxes and river otters, which makes the corridors attractive to trappers as well. This includes the beaches and rocky shoreline of saltwater. Waterfowl hunters keep their dogs close except for retrieving, which is typically from the water. Even so, they are aware of the potential for traps and keep their dogs in check. This same precaution applies to walking a dog along a river or beach.
We Americans love our dogs, some would say with a fervor that borders on psychosis. Christine and I could be poster children for this dog loving, which sometimes might defy rational description. With that love, November brings the murmur of what I'll refer to as the "dog wars."
It seems every year there is an incident that involves a dog getting caught in a trap or snare, sometimes with fatal results. Most often this occurs near roads or trails used by folks out walking their beloved dogs on public land where it is legal for the trap to be set.
On the heels of such an occurrence comes the cry demanding this, that or another government to ban trapping in the area. Those who hate trappers help fuel the fire, and in some cases laws have been passed. Many municipalities have trapping bans in place. In 2017, the Mat-Su Borough imposed bans in some areas in response to public complaints. In other areas, the fight continues.
Being a trapper (although inactive for a number of years) and a dog lover, these bans are of no concern to me. From the trapper's perspective, neither I nor any other legitimate trapper I have known sets traps in areas frequented by dogs. The thought of catching and harming or killing someone's dog is repulsive. The subject of avoiding catching dogs is addressed in trapping classes, by trapper's associations and by trappers in general, on a regular basis.
From the perspective of a dog lover and trapper who would never set traps in these areas, I don't object to a reasonable rule that the people of an area want to pass. The reason I don't concern myself with them is that I cannot allow myself to believe regulation alone will keep our dogs safe. They are my responsibility, and no matter where I am, no matter what regulations are in place, I'm not going to let my guard down. We have laws for just about everything these days, and there are always people willing to break them. To illustrate the point, last I checked it was illegal to steal someone's vehicle.
Instead of relying on the government to protect your dog, I would encourage those who frequent the outdoors with their dogs to become familiar with the country and the animals there that might be targeted by trappers. Learn how they move through the countryside, and learn how to identify places that would make for good trap sets. Learn to think like a trapper, and in the process you'll learn a lot about the world around you.
I won't go into how to spot a trapline because it would assist those whose personal convictions lead them to circumvent the law and sabotage traplines, or those who will steal from trappers.
I would encourage anyone who travels with their dog in the backcountry to have heavy-duty, wire-cutting pliers to cut a snare from a dog's neck. There are videos on the internet that show how to release a body grip trap with an easily carried length of rope. But seeing it on video isn't enough. Find a trapper willing to let you practice the procedure on a 330 Conibear. You don't want to have to do this for the first time while your dog is fighting for its life.
Steve Meyer of Kenai is a longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter.